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Architecture Glossary - Line of Charm

28 March, 2022
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Ryan Book

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Line of Charm’.

The “line of charm” is perhaps best understood by stepping back from golf and considering logistics. There is a gold nugget on the other side of the creek from where you stand, and you and a stranger both want it. Obviously, the quickest and most direct way to reach the prize is to jump across the creek. This, however, invites the unpleasantness of being soaking wet if you miss, or worse, breaking an ankle. Therefore the stranger may choose to walk down the creek to a bridge, and then back up to the gold once they’ve reached the other side. You jump, because you want to beat him to the gold.

Now that you’re wealthy and dry, we can look at the same concept as it occurs during the design of a golf course.

The idea of traveling straight from the tee toward the flag is referred to as a “line of instinct,” because it’s natural for any living thing to find the quickest way toward a goal. Golf courses that allow players to travel directly at the hole without considering hazards are often dismissively referred to as “freeway golf.”

Not quite the opposite, but more thought-provoking, is the “line of charm” concept; putting players in a position where they realize there is a quicker way to reach their goal, even if there’s risk involved.

The actual term “line of charm” originated with Max Behr, a respected writer and editor (Alister MacKenzie would cite him for the “line of charm” within The Spirit of St. Andrews), although slightly less popular in his day as an architect. Many of his existing designs exist in the Los Angeles area and operate on the bedrock of “charm.” His most notable remaining course is Lakeside Golf Club, which won the admiration of Bobby Jones and MacKenzie.

We’ll consider the first hole (ironically, a Billy Bell design, as Behr’s original was destroyed in a flood). This 390-yard par four features a large bunker off the left of the fairway, at a distance where many golfers will hit their drives. Faced with this imposing hazard, a Darwinian golfer may think to themselves: “Well. Why should I risk leaving my drive in that sand hazard when there’s so much fairway, and no bunkers, on the right side?” Those who understand the basic concepts of strategic golf course architecture know exactly why: because it likely results in a better angle into the green.

The “line of charm” is the golf course architect’s method for tempting the golfer to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t. This does not mean the architect is forcing them to take that line, but rather forcing them to think about a shot for the costs they’ll incur if they miss, as well as the costs they’ll incur by taking a safer path.

Let’s return to No. 1 at Lakeside. Two players are about to begin a match, and may look at the hole in two completely different manners. The more aggressive player will challenge the bunker, thinking that he can take a point by scoring birdie. The more conservative player will avoid the hazard, but this doesn’t mean he’s surrendering the hole; he’s simply playing for par and hoping his opponent makes an error.

The line of charm, then, is not the opposite of a “line of instinct.” In fact, they’re often very similar, but golf course architects create hazards to challenge this path. Avoiding this path may be a “line of survival” (a term we made up).

Where else might one find such a line? As alluded to earlier, MacKenzie used the phrase when describing St. Andrews.

Rob's bunkers (right) look more intimidating from above, however Sutherland (at the left) will have a more profound impact on the average golfer's play at the Old Course No. 15.

Consider No. 15, Cartgate (In), one of the more underrated holes at the Old Course. The obvious play is to hit straight out from the tee box, toward the green. A pot bunker (Sutherland) sits 215 yards out from the Black tees, however, on that line. Does the player trust themselves to thread the bunker and the rough? Can they carry the bunker, especially if the wind is blowing? It may be enough to encourage them to bail out left, where some dune mounding can make the view of the green difficult.

St. Andrews, and other well-designed courses, also feature instances where the line of charm changes depending on where the flag is placed for that day. For example, consider No. 4 at Erin Hills Golf Course.

Photo credit: @TyGOLF

This long par four features a lengthy centerline bunker just ahead of the green. This forces players to take note of the pin position and then decide which set of fairway bunkers to challenge. If the flag is on the right of the green, players will try to carry those on the right to get the ideal line. The bunkers on the left are farther out, so conservative players have the opportunity of laying up on the left as a “line of survival.”

We brought up these three holes in particular because they all travel relatively straight from the tee; no doglegs. Although doglegs certainly have a “line of charm,” it’s easier to figure out the “ideal” path on an angled hole. If a hole is straight, the architect must consider the terrain, placement of hazards, and placement of greens more carefully to create lines of charm (as well as lines of survival).

We’ve already discussed “freeway” golf, but other schools of architecture also frequently defy the “line of charm” theory, such as the “penal” school. The penal era of golf course architecture sought to challenge golfers and take few prisoners, an attitude that — in its practitioners’ defense — was desirable to memberships at the time. Courses such as the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral squeeze the fairway with bunkers, water or a combination of the two on both sides of the fairway, not providing a “line of survival.” Generally, the player must still leave their shot on a specific side of the fairway to get the best line, but if there are hazards on all sides, there is no line of charm to suggest where that might be.

The “line of charm” is not simply a sign instructing players where to hit, such as a directional pole rising over a dune on the linksland. Rather, it’s a challenge placed by the architect to inform the wise golfer that if they wish to score, they’ve got to come this way. So if you’re ever standing at a tee and wondering to yourself why the bunker on the left looks so good when the right is wide open, don’t worry: You’re not a fool.

You’ve just been charmed.

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